Friday 20 April 2018

Garry Ringrose: I don't feel like I'm being minded or held back

Leinster's latest centre sensation should not be rushed into green jersey

‘I remember when we ran out initially and then when Munster ran out the whole place shook.’ Photo: INPHO/Ryan Byrne
‘I remember when we ran out initially and then when Munster ran out the whole place shook.’ Photo: INPHO/Ryan Byrne
Gary Ringrose Photo: Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

As he shuffles off out the door, looking like someone who has just been freed from the dentist's chair, Garry Ringrose has a parting shot. "Sorry about the mess," says the 21-year-old. "I got tongue twisted in the middle. Sorry about that!"

He's not even in the corridor when he's reviewing his performance, regretting a lengthy answer in the middle of the interview that was bordering on unintelligible. This is a unique occurrence. And it's also refreshing. We can't remember the last time we came across someone whose profile is through the roof, and whose ego is rooted in the basement.

The grounding process for Ringrose clearly started at home, where achievement in rugby is not on the family crest. His dad was a decent club player, and for two of Garry's three siblings the game doesn't feature at all. Moreover at school, and unusually for a player so talented, his progress wasn't exactly seamless. The standard route for top schoolboys is to put, back-to-back, four or five seasons of cup rugby spread between junior and senior cups. Not him.

"No, it definitely wasn't the case," he says. "I think fourth year was the turning point when I would have tried so hard in third year to make the juniors as a nine and wasn't selected, rightly, so, I wasn't good enough. But in my head I was always determined and ambitious to play at the top level. I think in fourth year, I reflected a bit and questioned my motives around playing.

"I kind of made a decision I was only going to play rugby if I was going to enjoy what I was doing, as opposed to feeling sorry for myself not getting selected. So I kind of had an attitude shift in that regard and really said: 'No matter what, no matter how good or bad rugby goes, I'm going to make sure I enjoy it as much as possible - enjoy training, the tough sessions, the easy sessions, no matter what it is, make sure I enjoy what I'm doing.'"

Not many 15- or 16-year-olds would be able to get such a sound perspective on something like that, especially in a school like Blackrock where rugby is not just a calling card, it's the whole deck.

When he got to fifth year the senior coaches were not jockeying for position to get a better view of this wunderkind. And when he got to sixth, he hadn't even nailed down a position, hopping from nine to 15. Next an injury opened the door to the 13 slot, but while be settled in there his goal-kicking through the season en route to the cup was, well, uninspiring.

Then in the first round he shot the lights out. And by the time his team got to the final - where they beat a favoured St Michael's side - his all-round game had reached such a level that everyone was asking who he was.

"It wasn't really expected but it moved incredibly quickly," he says. "And things just seemed to fall into place. Got a lot of luck along the way as well, after leaving school."

Ringrose's overnight success meant that his journey through Leinster's Academy and the Ireland under 20s would attract a viewership. In keeping with his Roy of the Rovers impression in the schools cup, a year later, in 2014, he found himself going from being dropped in the under 20 Six Nations after two games, to sneaking onto the flight for the Junior World Championship in New Zealand, and ending up one of the nominees for player of the tournament.

That competition can often be painful viewing for Ireland supporters. For reasons of either genetics or sheer weight of numbers a clatter of other countries bring a selection of prize bulls to the show. And our lads get trampled underfoot. Ringrose's ability to stand out in this company confirmed that his elevation to senior status would be a question of when, not if. Like when he grew up and put on a few kilos?

Just over a month ago we were treated to a national debate about whether or not Garry Ringrose should be picked for Ireland's Six Nations squad. He had already been exposed to national camp a year earlier but on a casual, filling-in basis. We're not sure if this debate achieved Liveline status, but at a guess it attracted as many cranks. The outrage at his omission was at its peak among those who were looking for a stick with which to beat Joe Schmidt, and those who sought a handy platform to spout on rugby.

We have a memory of watching Ringrose in the RDS on a Friday night in November, soon after the World Cup. It was his fifth game of professional rugby, against Scarlets. As with his previous four he would play the full game, but every tackle seemed to make a hefty withdrawal from his energy bank, every contact looked like an opportunity for the Welsh to welcome him to the big league. Except that the Pro12 is not the big league. It's a halfway house.

So the notion of arresting his development by dropping him into the Six Nations was populist, and crazy. It will start up again in May when Schmidt announces his squad for the three-Test series in South Africa. By then Ringrose's Leinster game stats might read circa mid-20s, if they go all the way to the Pro12 final, and their centre stays fit. With a view to the 2017 Six Nations and beyond, the November series looks a much safer bet. Brace yourself for another clamour though.

"I suppose my mates were slagging me about that and stuff but, kind of as before, I would try not to let what's being said in the media cloud the important things, and that might be the advice from senior players in here (Leinster) or the coaches at Ireland," he says. "I wouldn't look at it as being minded or held back certainly because I have only 15 or 16 caps for Leinster (last night against Connacht was his 17th) and this is my debut season.

"I'm incredibly delighted to be in the position that I'm in at the moment, and I wouldn't have predicted or expected this. I was over the moon to play a few games (for Leinster) during the World Cup and then to continue on since then has just been incredible. I wouldn't be looking at what I haven't achieved. It's more just focusing on what I have at the moment, and trying to continue that form with Leinster."

To emphasise his youth, next Saturday in the Aviva - where last week 40,000 tickets had already been sold - will be his first time to play at HQ. If the Munster fans were unsure about what he had to offer before the first meeting of the teams in December, they have a clearer picture now. He looked class.

"Playing in Thomond Park against Munster was the biggest crowd I ever played against," he says. "I remember when we ran out initially and then when Munster ran out the whole place shook. That was a pretty cool experience and I was smiling thinking, 'Jeez I didn't think I'd be here two or three months ago.' The Aviva will be a level up from that again. It depends on selection and I just don't know yet but fingers crossed I'll be involved. "

Players say that kind of thing as a box-ticking exercise on the modesty sheet. With Ringrose however it comes across as genuine. Which, like his talent, is truly remarkable. So we should relax and let it unfold.

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